“. . . but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20).
IN THIS TEXT, PAUL GIVES US A SUMMARY OF THE MESSAGE GOD SENT HIM TO PREACH. To one and all, he preached that “they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” This preaching called for a change much deeper than simply changing one’s “religious affiliation.” If the only thing that is different after we’ve been baptized is that we “now go to the right church,” it may be that we’ve still got some changing to do.
Attending a different church. Some have the idea that heaven is simply the reward given by God to those who have identified the right religious group to be a part of. For them, baptism means little more than the doorway between the wrong church and the right church. On this point, let us be clear: unscriptural religious affiliations will jeopardize our souls. But there is more to the gospel — and to salvation — than getting into the right church.
Becoming a different person. In the text above, Paul said that he called on hearers to “turn to God.” This is the heart of the gospel: turning to God. If we have been religious people and have been affiliated with a group whose doctrines and practices are out of sync with the Scriptures, that will need to be corrected. But those things are symptoms of the problem. The problem the gospel addresses is that our hearts have been taking a disobedient, self-willed stance with regard to God, not just in our religious affiliation but in everything else. The gospel, therefore, calls on us to turn to God, seeking the gracious forgiveness He offers and committing ourselves to a completely new life in Him. This new life will come from an admission that the problem with our previous life was not merely the church we were attending; the problem was us. So yes, the matter of “church” will need to be addressed, but the deeper (and much harder) issue is whether we’re ready to die to what we used to be and learn to be a person with a very different kind of heart. Without this kind of turning to God, baptism is an empty act.
“Conversion is a deep work — a heart work. It goes throughout the man, throughout the mind, throughout the members, throughout the entire life” (Joseph Alleine).